HELENA – Montana saw a record number of former foster care youth attending higher education through the Education and Training Voucher (ETV) program in the 2018-2019 school year.
ETV provides resources to aid with the education and training of those youth aging out of foster care.
The program is federally funded as a part of the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence program and distributed locally by Reach Higher Montana.
“It can provide anything from school funding and books to housing for the individual,” said Erin Kintop, grants and contracts unit supervisor for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services Child and Family Services Division.
The health department’s data indicates around 4% of Montana youth in foster care age out of the system each year.
Those young adults usually do not have the same support system many of us take for granted.
“When working with the kids that age out of the foster care system we see difficulties with attending post-secondary education in terms of housing and having a positive and stable adult that they’re able to ask advice of,” noted Kintop.
Kintop added that getting post-secondary education can be life-changing for those young Montanans.
“Growing up in foster care certainly means that they had troubled childhoods. Often times we see youth who are attending postsecondary education are the first person in their family to graduate. They really start to realize all the ways they can be successful,” said Kintop.
Reach Higher distributed an average of 30 ETVs each year between 2013 and 2018. For the 2018-2019 school year, the number dramatically rose 70% to 51 recipients.
“There’s a few reasons for the growth. The federal government raised the age the students can get the ETVs to 26 years-old is one thing,” said Rhonda Safford, programs manager for Reach Higher. “Another reason due to changes on the FAFSA. Now when the students indicate foster care in any way they direct them to DPHHS.”
Safford said another factor is Reach Higher moving onto high school campuses across the state and providing earlier guidance.
Montana youth currently receiving ETV funding are pursuing bachelor degrees, master degrees and trade schooling.
“We do try to really try to emphasize that college isn’t just a four-year degree and we have about 45% of our students going to two-year colleges,” noted Safford. “We do work on what are career goals, what would be a good fit for you and what they need to reach that.”
Safford said she’s seen a lot of success stories with the ETV programs– but by no means does that mean it is easy for those students.
Gabrielle Wheeler aged out of the foster care system after living in a group home and is currently attending Helena College as a sophomore.
Wheeler is pursuing a degree in social work, with hopes to one day help others that are in a similar situation.
The sophomore attended the University of Montana her freshman year but decided to move back when she has some struggles. She ended up taking a year off and wasn’t sure she’d be able to return to school.
“I didn’t feel like I had the money to go to school and afford other things like rent,” explained Wheeler, “but Reach Higher and Chafee helped me get set up to go back for college.”
Wheeler — who works full time in addition to being enrolled in college — emphasizes the support and advice she’s received has made all the difference.
“They’ve helped me with silly little questions like ‘I’m putting this deposit on this house but I’m a little anxious do you think it’s a good idea?’ or car advice for example. Just having anyone that I can pick up the phone and ask those little questions is really resourceful,” said Wheeler.
For Wheeler, Chafee support and ETV funding is helping her define her own future.
“I feel blessed honestly. I know the idea of foster care, especially while you’re in it is kind of traumatic and/or exhausting, to be honest,” said Wheeler. “It helped me see that I can further myself than what my biological parents did or than what my experience was in foster care.”
As of Monday, there were around 3,900 kids in the foster care system in Montana.
Of those that enter foster care in Montana, 65% are reunited with their parents and 53% are placed with relatives.
Montana is the second highest in the nation for kinship placements, according to DPHHS data.
DPHHS notes there is always a need for more foster care parents in the state.
More information about the foster care system, including how to become a foster parent, can be found on the DPHHS website.
-John Riley reporting for MTN News